Monuments to the Ten Commandments have a way of popping up in the most unexpected places.
Until this week, the Oakland Zoo had been home to a marble, six-foot Commandments monument since 1965. At the time the display was erected the land was part of a state park, and while it wasn’t near any of the primary animal exhibits, it was in close proximity to a building that the zoo frequently rents to community groups, according to the Oakland Tribune.
The Tribune reported that zoo CEO Joel Parrott “had been wanting to [remove the monument] for a long time,” almost 10 years in fact, and was simply waiting for the right moment.
Apparently that moment presented itself when two groups, the East Bay Atheists and Atheists Advocates of San Francisco, scheduled a protest for this coming weekend. Joey Piscitelli, a self-described pagan who had planned to participate in the now-canceled protest, told the Tribune that he had previously rented the building near the monument. When his guests saw the display, they were “shocked.”
Parrott claimed the zoo only occasionally received complaints about the display, but Piscitelli had written to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan in May, saying it’s offensive to non-Christians, according to the Tribune.
Parrott also said the timing of the removal had nothing to do with the upcoming protest, but Piscitelli didn’t buy it. “That's totally unprecedented,” he told the newspaper. “They wanted to thwart the demonstrations and keep this out of the public eye.”
Regardless of the timing or motivation, the zoo did the right thing. The monument certainly didn’t belong on public land, whether that land was part of a park or a zoo. Governments should never be promoting religion, and a Commandments display on public property is about as obvious a promotion of religion as you can find.
The location of this monument was also pretty weird. It’s far from rare for Decalogue displays to show up in state parks, but a zoo? That could be a first. Unless one of the commandments was changed to “thou shalt not feed the animals,” it’s difficult to imagine the monument serving a secular purpose in that setting, even to those who support such displays.
There seem to be two lessons here. First, those who want to turn the United States into a Christian nation will try to insert things like Commandments displays just about anywhere they can get away with it. Second, speaking up makes a difference. I’m skeptical that after ten years of “consideration,” the zoo just happened to remove the display days before it was to be protested.
Parrott said he had been fearful for some time of lawsuits, and that was his main motivation for removing it. This did indeed have the makings of a potential court fight, and unlike so many misguided government officials who battle to the end for Religious Right causes on the taxpayer’s dime, it’s good to see Parrott exercised some common sense.